BOSTON — The Celtics are looking like a team that’s finally hit that wall.
It’s only mildly concerning that it’s come with 19 games left in the season. Those 19 games give the Celtics more than enough time to rediscover what they were doing so well over the first 55 games.
And certainly, the timing of the wall crashing comes with the tougher schedule that the Celtics are facing.
Throw out the stinker against the Nets, the losses against the Lakers on Feb. 24, the Jazz last Friday and Sunday’s collapse against the Thunder are starting to expose some serious crack in that wall. The Celtics fell 105-104 Sunday evening at TD Garden when Jayson Tatum’s jumper over Chris Paul fell short at the buzzer.
“I told coach (Billy Donovan) in the huddle that I wanted to guard Jayson because I had a feeling they would go to him,” Paul said. “I work out with JT during the summer. We play hoop. If you ask him he’d probably tell you he got the shot he wanted but I just wanted to make it tough on him.”
Turns out Paul was right.
“I worked out with Chris,” Tatum said. “He is a good defender, but I got the shot I wanted. It was just a tough night, shots were not going in, but it felt good.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 9, 2020
The Celtics didn’t lose the game on Jayson Tatum’s missed jumper over CP3 at the buzzer. They didn’t even lose it on the Dennis Schoder steal of Kemba Walker. They lost Sunday’s game when they fell asleep in the final 51.8 seconds of the second quarter after building a 63-45 lead as Gordon Hayward was hitting everything in sight.
It was as if the Celtics were feeling way too confident and forgot about the details on defense. Nerlens Noel and Paul made baskets in close and Danilo Gallinari drilled a three uncontested.
“Yeah the end of the second quarter was bad,” Brad Stevens said, before backing off a bit. “Not really, just the last minute or so but it hurt. And then the third they did a good job of making some plays and shots. I thought we missed a few good looks early in the third and maybe played a little tight from that point on. And that happens.”
“We loosened up defensively,” Hayward added. “We let our guard down a little bit and they put a run on us. That was huge, that was definitely a big last minute, last 40 seconds or whatever it was. We have to be better at the end of games, at the end of quarters obviously too. It was a tough one tonight.”
The Celtics have lost four straight at home, a stunning number for a team that just two weeks ago had realistic hopes for catching Toronto for the No. 2 spot in the East. They’re now just 1.5 games ahead of No. 4 Miami and just 3.5 ahead of No. 5 Indiana. That’s what can change in the NBA when you hit a wall like the Celtics have.
“This is part of navigating your way through this stuff, right? So, you can feel like you’re on top of the world one week and you can feel like the sky is falling the next. That’s the hardest part about the NBA is that’s just the way it goes. We’re in a way right now where we just – we just don’t sustain it. The way that we have and the way that we know we can. And so, it feels like in those moments other things kind of snowball on you. So, I’ve lived this before you know, with most of our good teams go through stretches like this and usually two or three a year. This is our second one. Hopefully we can nip that in the bud and not have a third one. But the road doesn’t get any easier. These are tough games coming up and that’s good because you got to do tough things to get yourself out of a rut.”
No, it certainly doesn’t. The Celtics have road games this week (at Indy on Tues and Milwaukee on Thursday) before returning Friday for a game with the Wizards.
How do the Celtics break out of this rut or better yet, break through the wall they’ve hit?
“Well the number one answer is, you know, stay in the possession and play a little bit better and do so with great technique with great purpose with great focus with great force and be able to let the results be what they are right. And then usually they work out in your favor. You know we’ve gotten beat by two straight good teams. Friday night was different than this one because you know I felt like we, Friday night, even though we were up early it was a little bit like we were playing – we were chasing them most of the game. They kind of dictated they game. Today you know things started going south for us and it snowballed a little bit. And again, this is the part about the NBA that is hard and it’s also fun to look back on when you kind of overcome it.”
For a second time in three games, the game came down to a Walker possession. The Celtics led 104-103 with 8.5 seconds left when Chris Paul offered some resistance on Walker in a trap, only to have Schoder come from behind and swipe the ball away for the game-winning layup. Stevens defended Walker.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 9, 2020
“Yeah Kemba did the exact right thing. He tried to dribble away from the obvious trap that was coming. Chris Paul did an amazing job moving his feet without fouling, just a tremendous defensive play. And then Schroder went for him full head of steam. You know and by the time Kemba had realized that Schroder was there. Great defensive play by them. The right reaction by Kemba to try to get it out and get it to the other side of the court. 99.999% of the time he’s able to turn that corner and somebody has to chase him and foul him from behind. This time he wasn’t able to do that. I know he’s down about it, but they made a good defensive play on that. Those are things we obviously have to get better at, but he did the right thing.”
The wall is something Tatum, himself is dealing with of late, managing 19 points on just 8-of-22 shooting.
“I don’t know, I felt like he saw a lot more doubles in the other games,” Stevens said. “They are up on his pick and rolls so they are more active with high hands and will throw in an occasional blitz on the pick and roll. But no like run-and- jumps like we saw at the Lakers, no super hard traps like we saw in a couple of the other games including the Cavs game where he handled them really well. But the best defenders are on him in every game and they are physical and they are dialed in and they are ready to go.”
Gordon Hayward returned to the lineup after a two-game absence and found his rhythm midway through the second quarter. In nearly 38 minutes, he finished with a team-leading 24 points.
“I think obviously I have stuff to work on. I think that is how the NBA works; you go through these runs, these stretches where you are feeling really good about yourself then it is like the world is coming to an end,” Hayward said. “I think as individuals, and as a team we have to try to not get too high on the highs or too low on the lows. This is a low for us and we’ve got to try and build ourselves, crawl ourselves back out of it and I think we will find it again. We are still the same team and we just have to lift each other up and find ways to win basketball games again.”
Now it’s time for the Celtics to respond on the road against the Pacers and Bucks. Good teams respond to great challenges.
“Yeah, regroup,” Hayward noted. “You know it is kind of – the beautiful thing about the NBA is you get another chance coming up real soon. So, we have another opportunity to get a win and play well against a really good team that plays really well at home as well. It is going to be a tough one. Tough road trip for sure but a great opportunity for us. We will look at the film individually and as a team and try to get better from it.”